The threat of another great war between China and the United States is eminent. The ideological and systematic parameters make the war likely in the near future even if the intensity of the current situation is nothing compared to the tensions emerging during the Cold War. If we look back to the history of the relations between China and the United States, it was not until 1979 that the latter recognized the government of the Mainland China – alternatively known as the People’s Republic of China – as the legitimate ruler of the state. The relations between both countries improved steadily since then until the miraculous growth of Chinese economy alarmed the United States. China has emerged out of its misery to the global scene as a key player and its relationship with the United State is a convoluted one yet far from deteriorating. While some of the scholars comprehend this association as a symbiotic bond, majority of them assert the fact that China is the single possible adversary of the United States. As we analyze several domestic and international harbingers from multiple theoretical perspectives – Democratic Peace Theory and Marxist theoretical framework –, an upcoming war between these two major players in international arena appears to be inevitable.

Michael Doyle is one of the proponents of the Democratic Peace Theory. According to this theory, liberal democracies scarcely go to war with each other for they adhere to certain principles and institutions that prevent them from hostilities. Doyle relies on Kantian idea of Perpetual Peace and utilizes his three ‘definitive articles’ to describe how liberal democracies are able to maintain a ‘separate peace’ among themselves. Kant – the inspiring philosopher behind DPT – binds the states with three articles in his imagined universal constitution that envisages a pacific union of the liberal states. The first article suggests the cautious nature of a state’s foreign policy. Since citizens who vote for a war are also a party to its costs, they inherently want to stay out of a conflict that leads the states to change their belligerent attitude and adopt a deferential one in their foreign policies. Secondly, these states accommodate the foreign policies of other states in the union under an impression that these polices are just and rest on popular consent. The last article emphasizes on the importance of trade as the economic welfare of their citizens serves as the most compelling motive for the states to promote peace and avoid war. Thus, a free market economy at international scale is also a guarantor of peace. According to the Democratic Peace Theory, liberal democracies can also ally against a possible threat to peace – in addition to nurturing peaceful relations with each other. Certainly, some historical, economic and socio-political factors pressure these states to act in a realistic manner but a common interest in the peace and the prosperity of their populace determine their foreign policies.

Democratic Peace Theory, however, takes a varied stance when it comes to the relations between liberal democracies and autocratic states as well as pseudo-democracies – the states that claim to be democracies but actually operate in a non-democratic fashion. It suggests that there is always a possibility of war between liberal democracies and autocracies. The non-democratic states act without the consent of their people and show no deference to the enduring peace. The autocracies seldom find partners the in international arena for they do not uphold the principles that appeal to other states. These states exploit the liberal democracies for concessions and are unilaterally responsible for the ignition of war. Liberal democracies, on the other hand, have no escape from indulging in a defensive conflict. Sometimes liberal democracies go to war to against autocratic oppression and to promote liberal democratic systems endure peace. The example of Iraq – though the liberal democratic system failed to operate – is a classical instance of how an autocratic regime tried to exploit the world peace at several occasions and ultimately forced a coalition of liberal democracies to respond to its belligerence. In short, the likelihood of a war between liberal democracies and autocracies is high due to the fundamental difference between their approaches to domestic and international politics.

The single most powerful indicator of the clash between China and the United States, according to the Democratic Peace Theory, is the dichotomy of their political system. Both states operate under two extremes. United State is an epitome of modern democracy and a self-proclaimed leader of the free world. The liberal democratic system in the United States holds the political elites accountable for their official decisions. Public opinion and consent matters in the foreign policy that in turn reflects the domestic norms in international arena. There exist certain liberal democratic institutions to prevent belligerent leaders from entering the war unilaterally. In the United States, the decisions of the executive are expected to be approved by the legislature and endorsed by the public. Moreover, the US Supreme Court holds the right to check the constitutional legitimacy of the decision. There also exist several interest groups to regulate these decisions according to their economic, ideological or political interests. Thus, a political leader is required to come up with legally plausible reason, win political and public support, and satisfy the interests of the interest group to go to war. This process slows down the mobilization of military means and provides time for the political elites to think of creative diplomatic solutions to avert the war. We see the application of diplomacy in the case of Iran – a states that was expected to be the next target of the United States. Even if the United States go to a war with any state, the leaders have to assure a victory to convince people. So according to this perspective, it is difficult for the United States to engage in a unilateral war with China but it is not far from impossible, given the political system and foreign policy decisions mechanism of the latter.

On the other hand, a Communist autocratic regime is ruling China. The current political system does not allow the expression of discontent against the state policies and the government controls popular channels of expression like media and internet. Politburo makes the crucial foreign policy decisions in closed rooms and the remaining political elites and public have to surrender to these decisions. The political instructions to curb the authority of the executive are simply absent. The other forms of amplifying public opinion like interest groups and civil society are illicit. Thus, in contrast with the United States, the policies of the Chinese government are the product of individual decisions. The current belligerent policy pursued by the Chinese government in the South China Sea and on ongoing disputes about the islands with Japan reflects the motives of Chinese political elites. As the economic growth is slowing down, they need to diverge the focus of the populace from domestic problems to the international ones by engaging in a probable diversionary war with the neighboring democracies like Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. These states are not only liberal democracies but also strong allies of the United States in the region. If China enters into a war with any of these states, the United States will be forced into a preventive war by entering into an automatic anti-China alliance with the regional liberal democracies. Thus, the likelihood of a USA-China war from a liberal democratic perspective is high.

Marxist theory of international relations – a distant and converse theoretical paradigm – is also able to predict the probability of war. This theory relies on the fundamental tenets of Marxism and extends them to the international arena. It describes the presence of a hierarchical class of states as core and periphery states – like the bourgeoisie and the proletariat classes – depending on their level of economic development and the mode of production utilized in their economies. It suggests that the global system of states is a reflection of capitalism and strong states are willing to exploit and devour the resources of the weak states. Immanuel Wallerstein – a Marxists scholar – suggests that the roles of states are continuously being produced and reproduced in the existing trading relations. Global economic system is composed of core states with enormous production capabilities and semi-periphery states that are half way between the former and the periphery states. China is one of these semi-periphery states and it is producing heavy industry goods and raw materials as do the core and periphery states respectively. The core states, such as the United States, would like to maintain the status quo and any attempt of China to break through this bond will be perceived as a threat to global economic vis-à-vis capitalist system – thus automatically a threat to the former. He also postulates the concepts of cyclical rhythm and secular trend; while the former illustrates the recurrent periods of boom and bust in international economic system, the latter translates into a long-term growth or contraction of it. It is widely known that the last Great War resulted in enormous growth of US economy that is struggling because of 2008’s crisis and facing a challenge by Chinese competition. Thus, as cyclical rhythm and secular trend continue to loom over capitalist economy, it will be optimum for the United States to bolster it by increasing production and consumption. The only way to do so is a war with China!

Another tenet of Marxism in international relations is the concept of hegemony proposed by Antonio Gramsci and furthered by Robert Cox. Hegemony is defined as a form of political power that relies upon consent rather than coercion. Gramsci by focusing on a super-structural phenomenon explored the mechanism through which consent for a certain political and social system is produced and reproduced through hegemony. Hegemony is another tool for the ruling class to further their ideas and ideologies. It allows them to become widely spread and recognized with any forceful intervention. Robert Cox borrows this concept and applies it to the persistent theories of international relations. He suggests that these theories are hardly objective and timeless. Instead they always serve someone and designed for accomplish certain purposes. In this way, Democratic Peace Theory and Perpetual Peace are mere shams and they are the theoretical tools to further the hegemony of the United States. Assuming that liberal democratic states are inherently peaceful is a self-deception. The United States is probably equally belligerent as China is and in fact, it was involved in more wars than the latter. However, Democratic Peace Theory provides a cover for the hostile intention of the United States by portraying China as the only contender of the probable war. The situation needs to be reanalyzed, this time not from a Democratic Peace perceptive. Apparently, China is challenging the ideological and economic hegemony of the United States and may be the next Great War will be declared by a liberal democratic USA on communist China.

Mark Rupert is a Marxist Critical theorist. He suggests that capital-driven states in the global economy are always looking to secure raw material – particular oil and natural gas – that is necessary to maintain their pace of production. Rupert sees the United States as a blatant proponent of its capitalist self-interest under the guise of its custodianship of the so-called Free World. He suggest that the United States has the ambition to create a USA dominated global capitalist economy and it has a history of engaging in armed conflicts with the actors who tried to hinder its hegemonic growth and associated capitalist agenda. For this reason, even the wars that the United States engaged in with a different rhetoric must be analyzed and understood in an ideological and economic context. For example, the invasion of Iraq cannot be isolated from a capitalist narrative as it was a war fought to control the vast natural resources of Iraq instead of countering the terrorism. Though China is also acting as a capitalist state, it undermines the US mission for the leadership of the capitalist world. Moreover, it is simple most strong competitor of the United States in commodity and energy market. If China surpasses the United States in coming years – as predicted and expected – it will undermine the ideological, economic and military hegemony of the United States. Thus, the situation will reiterate the inter-imperialist rivalry of the strong states on a global scale. This rivalry may not be limited to economic or ideological competition but it can result in a hostile conflict.

The United States and China are on the verge of a war. The both theoretical framework used to predict the probability of war point in a horrible direction. According to the DPT, the United States will inherently engage in war with China due to the nature of Chinese political system and the alliances of the former with the regional liberal democracies. Marxism, on the other hand, imagines a war instigated by the United States to protect its hegemonic interests against China. There are a number of factors influencing the outcome but if it is the next Great War that we are expecting – rest assured – it will be a nuclear war costing millions of lives.


This commentary was written as a requirement for POLS 328 – Theories of International Relations course offered by Asst. Professor Ismail Yaylaci, during my sophomore year at Istanbul Şehir University.